A power outage during a violent storm wouldn’t be wholly unexpected. But when the lights go out on a clear day, it can be difficult to determine the reason why you’re sitting in the dark. Looking for an answer? It could be one of the six surprising power outage causes below:
Squirrels are known to chew on power lines, which causes damage and sometimes results in the loss of power. Squirrels are such a problem, in fact, that the American Public Power Association began tracking outage trends via a “Monthly Squirrel Ticker” on its website. To get an even better idea of the extent of squirrel tampering, check out Cyber Squirrel 1, which reports the number of squirrel- and other animal-related events that disrupt power systems around the globe.
Other, non-squirrel animals have also caused major power interruptions worldwide. In July 2016, a monkey fell onto a transformer in Kenya and knocked out power to the entire country; raccoons, snakes and cats have also caused outages. It turns out that electricity isn’t safe even from fish: A bird recently dropped a salmon onto a power line in Seattle, causing a loss of power to 172 customers.
According to numbers from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Mylar balloons were responsible for 519 power outages in the LA area alone in 2015. When these balloons come in contact with power lines, their metallic surface can spark a power outage. To prevent such outages, the Energy Education Council recommends that Mylar balloons be weighted down to prevent escape and punctured before disposal.
You may hear the crash or loud bang on a nearby road just before your lights flicker and go out. Cars and trucks take down power lines or crash into transformers, often resulting in the need for emergency repairs. One vehicle-related outage a few years ago gained significant attention because it affected the internet: A truck crashed into a transformer and cut power to a major web hosting company’s data center in Dallas, which killed service to a number of their customers’ websites.
Vegetation management, which consists of keeping the area around power lines clear, is a top priority for local power companies. Trees are suspected to be the root cause (yes, pun intended) of 30 percent of power outages. When branches touch a power line, it can cause what’s known as a power flicker — a brief loss of electricity in your home. But trees have also caused larger blackouts, too, including an outage in 2003 that affected 50 million people.
Extreme weather throws an added wrench into the mix alongside other power outage causes. The effects of heat or cold on equipment, combined with consumers’ tendency to overuse the system by turning up the heat or air conditioning during bouts of extreme temperatures, can quickly compromise the local power supply. Ice storms in particular cause heavy damage. According to The Weather Channel, just a half-inch of ice can produce an extra 500 pounds of weight on power lines.
No system is perfect, and a number of small glitches can set off a chain of events resulting in major outages. In Puerto Rico, for instance, an overheated switch resulted in a fire that shut down power to almost 1.5 million people. In Atlanta, failed equipment caused Delta Airlines to cancel around 1,000 flights, highlighting the widespread effects of even a small malfunction.
No matter what the cause, advanced preparation helps when the power goes out unexpectedly. If your neighborhood is prone to outages, review this survival kit checklist to make sure you’re prepared. Also, don’t forget to call your power company and report the outage so that any issues can be quickly addressed.